Just the job

Design Week’s latest survey examines how the industry rates its recruitment agencies, in a decade which has seen staff levels climb steadily.

It’s not surprising to find that design groups still rate word of mouth as the best way of finding staff. So sociable is the design industry that commercial rivals are frequently to be found swapping notes on the state of the business over breakfast or a drink. They are just as likely to phone each other if they’re seeking new staff, and, as many of our survey respondents point out, it’s certainly the cheapest method.

But, with rapid growth on the agenda for most of the major groups and a real shortage of middleweight designers with experience (thanks to the rigours of recession in the early Nineties), there’s been a boom in recruitment through press advertising and recruitment agencies over the past couple of years. This boom has been in all disciplines and at all levels within consultancies. Where once it was largely freelance designers and Apple Macintosh operators who were highly sought after, now there are a lot of very senior jobs on offer in management and on the creative side.

There is also far more likelihood now of British designers being poached by overseas groups – just witness the impending move to Los Angeles by Imagination creative group head Alex Ritchie, who is tipped to join German consultancy Arthesia in its new US arm. And those – such as former Din Associates graphics head Valerie Wickes, who is now with New York ad agency Arnell Group – who decided to make the move abroad of their own volition, have frequently found it easy to find good jobs.

“There is a tremendous market for UK designers and suits in the US,” says New York recruitment agent RitaSue Siegel of RitaSue Siegel Resources. “Most UK designers want to be in New York or the San Francisco area. This is a mistake. There are great opportunities all over the country.”

Siegel says the market is strongest for graphic and industrial designers, but her agency is also lining up design staff from the UK for US architects, retail designers and corporate identity and branding specialists.

Meanwhile, the client side has opened up more to designers. Take the moves this year by former Fitch product design seniors Bill Sermon and Clive Grinyer to Nokia and Tag McClaren Audio respectively.

Design Week’s recruitment pages give a good indication of the scale of recruitment activity – indeed, advertising in specialist titles like DW was rated second to word of mouth as the most effective way to get the right staff. We have run an average of around seven pages of jobs a week for the past two years, compared with five pages previously – and the volume is growing.

Though not everyone’s preferred option for recruiting staff, agencies and head hunters have a key role to play. But there is a difference between highly skilled headhunters, such as Radnall Davis, which specialise in senior staff, and agencies such as Major Players and Price Jamieson which can help across the board.

The difference is often reflected in the fees, invariably charged to the design group rather than the candidate. The average rate is between 15 and 20 per cent of the annual salary being offered, but often more for a senior job.

Some design groups find recruitment agencies the most effective way of finding staff. “It saves time and designers have already been vetted so the quality is higher than with the design press,” says one creative director. Others find agencies more effective for middleweights and above and press ads for juniors. Some, such as Paul Priestman of product design group Priestman Goode, rate advertising best in terms of speed and cost and to promote a consultancy.

Many consultancies we spoke to say it depends on the particular job and is too hard to generalise. Most respondents to our trawl find press advertising the most cost-effective.

But there are other ways. HGV creative director Pierre Vermeir, for example, puts the responsibility for attracting the right staff firmly with the consultancy. “Building up the reputation of the company to high creative standards attracts the right designers,” he maintains. The Partners, meanwhile, uses student placements as a way of checking out potential recruits and runs a bonus scheme for existing staff making successful referrals for new people.

The aim of DW’s trawl is to throw up the best recruitment agencies operating in the design sector. By highlighting consultancies’ top choices, we hope to promote better practice among agencies and more considered use of all recruitment methods by design groups. You are, after all, only as good as your staff.

What we did

To ensure we pass on only the best advice, we trawled only those design groups that are acknowledged to be the best in terms of business skills and creative quality. We based our sample on the 1998 Design Week Top 100 Consultancy Survey and Creative Survey, supplementing it with groups known to be good, but which did not take part in those trawls, particularly those that have been actively recruiting over the past few months.

The sample includes big and small groups with a mix of specialisms, and multidisciplinary or strategic consultancies across a broad geographical spread. Disciplines covered range from print graphics to multimedia, taking in product design, retail and interiors.

Participants were asked to share their experiences of recruitment agencies with us and to rank them according to overall service and performance. This information, from the questionnaire, forms the basis of our charts, but the data was supplemented by follow-up calls to consultancy bosses to give our findings more flavour.

We have focused the survey on recruiting designers and business “suits” within consultancies. Participants were not asked about hiring freelances or craftworkers such as Apple Macintosh operators. This is why some of the recruitment agencies specialising in these areas do not feature in our polls.

We also trawled recruitment agencies we identified as active in the design sector. They were asked to complete a separate questionnaire, listing their services and outlining what they needed from consultancies by way of a search brief. This has helped to build a fuller picture of the recruitment scene.

The information reported is published in good faith. We have undertaken to give as clear an appraisal as possible of recruitment agencies as design groups see them. But, as with all surveys, our findings rely on the honesty and integrity of respondents to our trawl.

Gabriele Skelton hates the term recruitment agency. She sees herself more as a ‘career consultant’ who cares about the progress of job candidates and the success of client consultancies. ‘We take great pride when a candidate stays for a long time with a consultancy,’ she says.

A designer by background, she is ‘very passionate’ about the business, she says. She she ran a design group in her native Germany, and moved to the UK when she came here ‘and fell in love with an Englishman’. Her move into recruitment came when she was headhunted by The Talent Store – the second recruitment agency to be set up in the UK after Judy Ward’s pioneering agency – to handle advertising and design appointments.

Skelton’s portfolio at The Talent Store eventually became too large and there was an amicable split ten years ago, when she left to set up her own agency specialising in design. Now she claims to have been in the business for long enough to be working with people for whom she found their first job, who now run their own design groups.

Skelton currently employs three full-time senior consultants, handling permanent jobs and freelance placings across the board of design industry jobs and at all levels of experience. A fourth person works part-time on multimedia jobs and there are two administration staff. All are from the design industry.

One of the things that sets Gabriele Skelton apart from other recruitment agencies is that ‘we don’t hunt’, says Skelton. By that she means the company doesn’t poach people, but prides itself on knowing who’s available. Some of the groups on the books welcome the chance to see candidates she and her team have identified as suitable, even if there is no current vacancy. ‘We have enough people in our pool to matchmake,’ she says.

Design has been booming over the past couple of years with a doubling of the jobs available over the past two or three years. Skelton sees this as a logical step post recession. ‘(During recession) I was a psychiatrist rather than a job consultant,’ she says, counselling people who couldn’t find work.

Now she meets briefs most consistently in packaging – ‘though it is a bit still in the booze world because of the situation in China and Japan,’ she says – and annual reports, which attract ‘the most talented people, because there’s more money’, she adds. Structural packaging ‘is getting better’, as is retail. But interiors are ‘still suffering’ as is product design, ‘because industry hasn’t bounced back’ after the early Nineties recession.

The biggest change though is the attitude to ‘suits’ in design, she says. ‘In the old days designers were anti suits. The current generation has learned from consultancies like the old Michael Peters Group and work more closely with clients. Clever consultancies have matched the right suits with the right designers.’ As for the suits – ‘there is more passion there now,’ she says. How great if the same could be said of the whole design industry.

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